From: Hannah Pell
RR Auction, an auction house based near Boston, Massachusetts, recently sold one of Albert Einstein’s handwritten letters for $ 1.2 million. The letter is addressed to the Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein, a well-known challenger to Einstein’s theory of relativity, who even published an article in the Toronto Evening Telegram in 1936 entitled “Fatal Blow to Relativity Issued Here”.
Aside from public presentations of the academic debate, what else about the letter made it cost almost three times what it was predicted? It contained the only handwritten example of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equations – E = mc ^ 2 – from a private collection. Archivists from the Einstein Papers Project have said there are only three other known examples. Arguably one of the most famous physical equations of all time, well, you can easily imagine why someone simply has to have them.
That multi-million dollar document made me wonder: What other notable pieces of physics history were auctioned off for a pretty penny?
|Photo credit: The Einstein archive from Ludwik Silberstein / RR auction.|
First edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton
Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize
“At auction, we sell the history of the item,” said Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s vice president of books and manuscripts in 2019.
Nuclear for sale
|Credit: Bonhams New York.|
Newer nuclear history materials were also auctioned, including a “fire sale” of parts from an abandoned federal plutonium project and a liquidation sale of Vermont nuclear power plant assets (valves, motors, and other parts).
The astounding prices at which these pieces of physics history were sold raise questions of value. A dated document or object may not have much intrinsic value – for example, some old laboratory equipment may no longer have any practical use today – but we still cherish these objects for their stories and keep these materials to inform and shape our understanding the past of physics.
It is certainly a priceless thing.